The Temperament for Poker
Jim was having a bad streak in the $10-$20 limit hold’em game. The game was good, with most pots being contested and lots of loose play. Loose Willy, who had opened blind, as he did whenever he won the previous hand, as Jim discovered at the end, had nothing going for his hand.
Specifically he started with 3♦8♣. Jim started with J♥Q♥and raised and all the other punters folded. The flop was 9♥T♥4♦.
Willy passed. Jim now had a straight flush draw. He bet and Willy called.
The turn brought the 2♦. Again Jim bet and Willy called.
The river brought the 3♣, about the worst card for Jim. Jim bet and Willy called.
Jim disgustedly turned over his cards, while yelling at the dealer, “Can’t you deal me anything but losers? Look what I was drawing to.”
Jim didn’t seem at all surprised when Willy showed down his hand, that 3♣ having paired him, to take the pot.
Other writers don’t mention a very important requisite for poker success, your temperament when playing. More particularly, how do you handle the inevitable downturns and setbacks of poker? Anyone plays great when winning, goes the cardroom cliché. There’s a lot of truth in that. It’s how you play when losing, when everything seems to be going wrong, that determines whether you ought, in my opinion, to play. Certainly whether you ought to be playing professionally.
Shortly after, I had pocket aces. Willy, who had opened blind as usual, called my raise. An ace came on the flop. I bet, and — no surprise there — Willy called, as he did on the turn.
On the river, the board was A♦3♥9♥5♣ 4♣. Willy looked at his cards and checked, seemingly reluctantly. I bet. Willy called.
“Did you make your hand?” I smiled. “I didn’t improve my set.”
Willy showed his hole cards, T♣ 2♦. He’d had nothing going for him except for an inside straight.
“Good hand,” I said. “Please take the pot.”
Three or four times in the course of the session, Willy called me down all the way in big pots and I had the best hand each time. One of the times he even called with only king high, “just to keep me honest.” I had to get stuck $500 before managing a win of $400 for the session.
While I was pleasantly going in the hole, Jim turned up his cards, out of turn, whenever he had two cards that were small and didn’t work together, and threw them towards the center of the table. “Hey, dealer, why do you keep giving me this crap?”
Jim wasn’t playing badly. He was playing a strategy that should make a slight profit for the average player, not playing speculative cards against pressure or trying to push substandard hands, not attempting to bluff the calling stations.
He wasn’t steaming. Just crying a lot, though about what I couldn’t really understand. Did he really think the dealer had singled him out and was deliberately dealing him losing hands? Did he think there was some cosmic plot against him?
Funny thing happens in a hold’em game when a player shows he’s going to fold out of position. Observant players in early positions can open with hands they might otherwise throw away. Funny thing happens when a player turns up his hole cards and screams at the dealer. A player who ordinarily never bluffs suddenly gets inspired to bet his bust.
Another funny thing happens. Players who otherwise might be intimidated by this player regard him as little threat and make plays against him, raise him when ordinarily they would call, bet when they would check. In other words, even losing players suddenly start playing a winning game against him.
What’s the point of all this? If you’re running poorly and overreact, you gather more bad luck around you. On the other hand, if you realize, as you should, that when you play poker, you are being paid to make good decisions and that individual outcomes are irrelevant in the long run, you may lose a lot of pots in which you have the best of it, but good decisions should have a positive expectation in the long run and you will make money overall.
A former roommate of mine asked me to teach him how to play poker. I taught him to beat the small games, and after several weeks of practice, sent him to the cardrooms, where he did, indeed, make a little money. But he got very depressed when he had a losing session, and wanted to tell me every bad thing that had happened, every bad-beat story. A loss would ruin the rest of the day for him, and sometimes the next. He couldn’t handle losing.
Finally I said, “Henry, you know how to play winning poker, but you don’t have the temperament for the game. I don’t think the aggravation is worth it.” Henry quit playing cards and went back to enjoying life. He later became a psychologist.
Maybe Jim should take a lesson from Henry. If Jim can’t handle the losses, he might be better off quitting playing entirely. Jim might not have the temperament to play.
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